The archetypal gangster film, Little Caesar (1931), based on the 1929 novel by the hard-boiled master W.R. Burnett, made it standard gang protocol to bring in the expert hit men from Detroit. The film’s impact then was immediate: it was a hit with audiences everywhere and started the “gangster” genre of film. It also endures today, as the film remains on the top 10 of the AFI’s Gangster Genre list. The flourish given to the Detroit connection in the film is rich: the two hit men only wound Rico, who cruelly sends his rival back to Detroit with the men he hired. In an indulgent bit of self-publicity, he places Little Arnie’s sudden departure as a society item in the paper. The whole town, never stated but described as Chicago, knows that no one, as Rico’s social item declares, leaves in spring “…for Detroit where he intends to spend the summer. He was accompanied by two of his Detroit friends, who had been in this city for a short stay.” The film’s message was clear: the big cities were rough, but Detroit was the toughest of all. Importing from there was what real gangsters did, and being exiled there was possibly worse than being hit.
Writers of the day were working with real newspaper headlines, and probably some underworld insights. Detroit was controlled by The Purple Gang, who came into power at the start of Prohibition, and with that “noble experiment” used the city’s cozy waterfront access to Canada to possibly let as much liquor cross the Detroit River as there was water in it. The mouth of each side of the river was safe and only a longer boat ride, with small towns at Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair on both sides unchecked by border patrols of any kind. Even at the heart of downtown Detroit the border crossing was manned but friendly, and could be avoided. The river is so narrow that boating across, navigating for a strong current and staying out of lights, was easy. In the winter it got colder than it does today, and the river surface would freeze solid, making for icy car and truck deliveries.
The Purple Gang (which, according to local legend and FBI files, got its name from a local market owner who described the young gang as “…rotten, purple like the color of bad meat”) was a group of young Jewish immigrants who’d cut their milk teeth on armed robbery, extortion and smaller rackets before 1920. Their coming of age hang out was the Bucket of Blood on Hastings Street – a two story club legendary for all “games of chance,” open prostitution, gun and knife fights and one extra-large doorman named Big Boy controlling traffic. Saloons like the Bucket disappeared with Prohibition, but the boys had grown out of it. 1920 began an era they seized as theirs alone to control all liquor distribution to the new speakeasies that took the place of the old saloons. In doing this quickly and violently, the Gang took over all of the liquor trade, and in fast order all rackets and affairs of the city of Detroit. They replaced their Bucket with blood and were instantly the wealthiest, deadliest and youngest gangsters in liquor.
The practice of “rum running,” as delivering booze over the river from Canada to the parched shores of the US was known, was a 13 year free-for-all. This meant everyone from “bootleg” former vintners now making and selling wine from their basements, on either side of that dime-thin border, to French Canadians running cases of Canadian Club across the ice in their cars had to pay up to the Purple Gang. If the gang wasn’t paid in cash, they collected their debts with bullets. (It was easier for smaller bootleggers to disappear into towns, but still risky business to even toy with not paying the Gang fees.)
The Gangs’ reputation for lethal violence was made early, and often. One family I know still owns the home in which “great-grandpa” made his wine and hid behind the secret panel in the closet when the Purple Gang would show up to collect. He refused to pay, and amazingly enough he got away with it. My own family has rum runner stories handed down: crazy creaking rides across the ice with cases of hooch for a speak and a night out of live, solid jazz, always slipping by the Gang. Hundreds in the Detroit area weren’t so lucky. It will never be known how many were taken out by this organization during 1920-1933 alone, but the official FBI estimate is a nice round 500. Given how many speakeasies were operating in every part of town, how many billions of gallons of liquor were sold, and how many other enterprises the Gang controlled, that number seems low. The gang’s reputation as “muscle” was so legendary it isn’t surprising to see a city in it’s clutches become known as the place far away gangsters, and writers, dreamt of when they wanted a real enforcer.
In one case importing from Detroit for the hit became a case of exporting to Detroit. The elusive bank robber and Kansas City Massacre gunman Vernon Miller was hiding out from the police and the FBI in Chicago in 1933 when he discovered a trap had been set. He escaped, and for a month no one could track him town, until his shot and mutilated body was found in a ditch in Detroit. During his “missing” time he’d managed to have a showdown with a gangster in New Jersey, and that man knew how to take care of someone as indestructible as Vernon Miller: export him to Detroit.
The sensational headlines of the day and the box office success of Little Caesar (and another, very different film from the same year, the now classic The Public Enemy) had Warner Bros. quick to bring W.R. Burnett in as one of the co-writers (he is often not listed) on Scarface (1932). Lady Killer (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) followed before the Hays Code put a stop to what audiences could see at the movies. Then the writers kept the gunplay, or the reward for violence off-screen. A laundry list of gangster films poured out of Warner Bros. and the other studios. One gem, Warner Bros’ The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), with a story by Burnett and directed by John Ford, brought Edward G. Robinson back in a double role as the stereotype gangster he’d made famous (this time Killer Mannion), and a shy bookkeeper (Jones) who is mistaken for the thug. Burnett and Ford use it as a vehicle to expose everything comic, exploited and misunderstood about the gangster without dramatic violence. (Robinson would revisit versions of the “Rico” role eight times, into the 1960s, complete with snarl, accent, cigar, and suit. In his other roles, such as the gangster going straight in the clever Larceny, Inc. (Warner Bros., 1942) he held on to some of the mannerisms of the “Rico” part, while playing a mature man who had overcome his hoodlum days.)
In Detroit the Purple Gang were fighting to stay out of jail as past murder raps were catching up to them. One bookie turned State’s as a witness to an intra-gang slaying in 1931 that ultimately sent three high-ranking Gang members to Alcatraz. With the end of Prohibition in December of 1933, the Gang’s stranglehold on Detroit became a grip, and eventually a palm print. Continued infighting and criminal convictions sent six more members to Alcatraz. Five were assassinated from 1933 through 1937. The original leader, Abe Bernstein, had wisely made connections in other cities during the 1920s. He left Michigan in the 30s for NYC and then for Miami, where he worked for the Syndicate’s casinos until his death in 1968.
The heavy from Detroit was forever an off screen, ominous threat to keep everyone in line, or take one out. It comes up in classic, mostly gangster films. One interesting use is the weight secret telephone contact with Detroit has as the deciding proof that a gangster is double-crossing his mob in the noir classic The Damned Don’t Cry (Warner Bros., 1950).
As America and the laws on organized crime, prison sentences and the film production code changed, the messages from Little Caesar endured and influenced new generations of audiences, writers and filmmakers when it came back into release in 1953. We still yell out loud with Edward G. Robinson, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” with sadness and delight, and we know that the serious hit men come from Detroit. If they miss, the boss who hired him gets sent back with them, and maybe they even have to walk straight across Michigan to get there. Rico never said how they were traveling. Maybe that exiled gangster eventually ends up in a ditch, like gunman Vernon Miller did barely two years later.
Detroit remains one tough city. Downtown at the foot of the Detroit River your greeting is visual and visceral: the 24’ long bronze sculpture of the arm and fist of Joe Louis is one massive punch leveling everything to the south. The direction is meant to represent all Louis did to fight Jim Crow laws. The immediate view, however, is of Canada just across the narrow river and a constant reminder of the city’s rise to prominence in gangland. The river and the metal of the statue keep an even dullness, especially from November until April, as the sun rarely shines. The sky has clouds as muscular and mean as the streets below, as if they’re holding the sun back and pushing it on to the next town. Not here, sister.
The phrase “imported from Detroit” is currently a tongue-in-cheek advertising slogan for a domestic car. It is unclear whose cheek, as the city has little to be smug about. Detroit declared bankruptcy proceedings in June 2013, which killed years of frantic P.R. over the city’s impending “renaissance.” Hype which also sought to gloss over a mayor going to the pen, and news stories of artists and musicians having to flee their “urban renewal” efforts after violent crimes. To add to their national press woes in June, taxpayer money was spent bulldozing an empty lot looking for the remains of Jimmy Hoffa – again.
Detroit was famously loaning out muscle at the same time it was building up the auto industry. Connoisseurs of American culture, classic film, crime fiction, and the history of the underworld know what “imported from Detroit” means.
sources: Detroit Public Library; Detroit Public Library Special Collections; FBI; The New York Times; AFI; Bibliography, W.R. Burnett; research in personal archives films 1929-1964; IMDb; The Detroit News Archives; Robertgraham.com; interviews with Detroit residents 2008-2009, 2011, 2013; Diskin Bertrand, Jean. (2004) Memoirs. (unpublished); Bak, Richard. (1998) Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope. New York. Perseus Publishing.
Bio: Carolina Bertrand is currently writing The Classic Hollywood Wardrobe. She is co-author, with Tom Lucas, of Torch, to be published by Room 1331 Publishing and Media in 2014. A Detroit native, she lives in Atlanta, GA. She can be found on Facebook and likes direct email at firstname.lastname@example.org.”